Rock Climbing
You might be surprised at how much you can improve without ever touching a hang board. (Photo: Micky Wiswedel/Stocksy)
Up Your Game

How to Actually Get Better at Climbing

This expert advice will help you get out of a rut and take your skills to a new level

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The best training for climbing is climbing itself. But when you’re chasing grades, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. Climbers can obsess over things like finger strength, systematic training plans, and strict diets while overlooking more efficient ways to improve. Matt Pincus, a seasoned climber and coach at TrainingBeta, says it’s more productive for beginner and intermediate climbers to focus on the simple things, like increasing climbing volume and confronting fear. If you follow the six simple principles he shares below, you might be surprised at how much you can advance without ever touching a hang board.

Aim for Consistency

The quickest and easiest way to get better is simply to climb everything you can, everywhere you can, in every different style. “When you’re able to climb consistently, you’re going to develop skill, technique, and specific strength—experience you really can’t get anyway else,” says Pincus. “There’s no shortcutting it.”

Set a target goal for days on the rock or at the gym, whether that’s per week, month, or season, with a cap at around three or four days per week to allow for adequate rest and recovery. There’s no magic number that will allow you to hit a certain grade, but if you climb more frequently than you have in the past, you’ll see improvement. “Show up and try hard—that’s the lowest-hanging fruit,” Pincus says. “If you’re not ticking those boxes, you’re already missing the easiest path to improvement.”

Climb Intentionally

Newer climbers often head out with a group of more experienced partners and just go with the flow, which can impede individual improvement. “Start bringing intentionality into your climbing,” says Pincus. “Having a plan and an objective for the day is huge.”

Before you go, read the local guidebook or check out Mountain Project. Choose a specific cliff or an area that you want to visit, select a few warm-up options, and get an idea of the routes you want to try that day. You can certainly pick climbs because they look cool and are within your comfort zone, but you should also choose a couple that challenge you. And optimize your climbing conditions. For example, check the aspect of the cliff, and determine if you want to be in the sun or the shade for that time of day and year. Good tactical decisions will help you make the best use of the time you have, which is especially important if you don’t get to climb outside often.

Remember: everyone’s time is equally important. Stronger climbers don’t deserve more attention. When you plan your day, communicate with your climbing partners to find a fair balance between everyone’s interests to prevent potential frustration later on.

Challenge Yourself

“It might feel good in the short term to pad your ego by playing to your strengths all the time, but in the long run, you’re not going to develop into as well-rounded of a climber,” says Pincus. Simply put, if you don’t push yourself, you can’t achieve your full potential. Work your weaknesses. If you’re comfortable on vertical climbs, for example, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a few laps, but if you want to become better overall, you’ll need to jump on some steep routes as well. “Chances are, if you’re avoiding climbing styles because they’re hard or scary for you, you’re missing learning opportunities,” Pincus says. 

Don’t Let Fear Get in Your Way

“The fear of falling is a major performance inhibitor for a lot of climbers,” says Pincus. “Even the best climbers, the boldest and the bravest out there, deal with fear on a regular basis.” The difference is how they handle it.

Climbing goes against our natural survival instincts. Even if we consciously know we’re safe, our lizard brains can fire signals of panic, whether that’s because you’re actively falling or because you lack confidence in the gear, your belayer, or your ability. Fear creates a negative feedback loop—when you’re scared, you climb poorly and get pumped faster, which leads to more fear, and so on.

There are many methods for overcoming this fear, Pincus explains, but all follow the same core philosophy: push yourself out of your comfort zone gradually. One popular strategy is to take practice falls. Find a gently overhanging route with solid hardware, and bring along a trusted belayer. Start small—maybe take a few falls on top rope to begin. If you’re ready to move to lead, climb a little above the bolt, and take a short fall. At whatever pace you’re comfortable with, move higher and higher above your last bolt to practice bigger falls.

Over time, your confidence will naturally ebb and flow. “You have to give yourself a chance to adapt to the unique challenges of each place, each rock type, each route,” Pincus says. Whether you’re transitioning between different climbing styles, coming back from several days off, or recovering from a surprise fall, it can take a few days or longer to reacclimate. Other days you might just feel a little cautious. That’s all OK.

Learn the Art of the Redpoint

Climbers like Alex MegosAdam Ondra, and Margo Hayes, among the world’s best, make 5.15 look cruiser. But when you’re watching videos of pros, you don’t often see the time and effort that go into their ascents: the days spent figuring out beta, memorizing moves, and linking sequences.

Redpointing—climbing a route clean after prior attempts and practice—takes time, dedication, and a little strategy. Think of it as a process rather than something you can or cannot do. Breaking down a climb piece by piece makes the challenge less daunting. “There’s an art to working sport routes,” says Pincus, “and learning those tactics will go a long way.”

If you’re intimidated by the potential for big falls, practice the route on top rope. You might be able to hike to the top of the cliff to hang the rope or reach the anchors from an adjacent route. Better still, have a stronger friend rope-gun for you. When you’re ready to try leading, you can tackle the route bolt to bolt to start, resting after each clip. This technique, called hangdogging, lets you feel out the moves with fresher arms and a cooler head. As you’re projecting, don’t hesitate to pull through tough sections: it might be possible to clip a draw overhead, then pull on it to move past a crux section for the time being.

There are a few strategies you can employ to make clipping as easy as possible, which will save energy and help you climb with better flow. First, leave your quickdraws in place between attempts (as long as there isn’t another party waiting on the route). If a route has a particularly tricky clip, extend the draw with a longer sling or by linking dog bones together to make it easier to clip from a better or safer stance. This is especially helpful for shorter people, since some routes are bolted by six-foot-plus giants who can reach draws from different holds.

“Those are all fair-game tactics in modern sport climbing,” says Pincus. “They’re used by climbing’s elite, and they can be just as helpful for newer sport climbers as well.”

Last but not least, give it more than one go. A climb might feel too challenging at first, but as you figure out the moves and begin to link sequences, you might surprise yourself. That’s one of the greatest feelings in climbing—when a route seems impossible one moment and you float up it the next.

Forget About Grades

Progress is motivating and fulfilling, and getting stronger opens doors, as there’s simply more that you can climb in a wider variety of places. But there’s so much to the sport beyond moving into harder grades, so don’t get too hung up on them. If you stick to these simple principles, strength and confidence will follow—along with more advanced climbs as a side effect. Be patient, trust the process, and have fun along the way.

Want to refine your climbing skills? Check out our Climbing Essentials with Conrad Anker online course on Outside Learn, where Outside+ members get full access to our library of more than 50 courses on adventure, sports, health, and nutrition.